Op-Ed: The Export of Democracy

By Christopher Hitchens
The Wall Street Journal (Opinion Journal)
July 12, 2005

All through the years 2003 and 2004 one used to hear it: "So, you think your Iraqi friends are about to adopt Jeffersonian democracy . . ." (pause for hilarious nudge, sneer, snigger or wink). After a bit too much of this at one debate in downtown New York, I managed to buy some time, and even get a laugh, by riposting that Iraqi democracy probably wouldn't be all that "Jeffersonian," since none of my Iraqi comrades owned any slaves. But I was conscious, here, of trading partly in the stupid currency of my opponents. (I would now phrase matters a little more assertively: The United States has yet to elect a black or Jewish president, while the Iraqi Parliament chose a Kurd as its first democratically selected head of state, and did so even while the heaped corpses of his once-despised minority were still being exhumed from mass graves.)

If hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue, then the frequent linkage of the name "Jefferson" with the word "democracy" is impressive testimony, even from cynics, that his example has outlived his time and his place. To what extent does he deserve this rather flattering association of ideas?

To begin with, we must take the measure of time. The association would not have been considered in the least bit flattering by many of Jefferson's contemporaries. The word "democratic" or "democratical" was a favorite term of abuse in the mouth of John Adams, who equated it with populism of the viler sort and with the horrors of mob rule and insurrection. In this, he gave familiar voice to a common prejudice, shared by many Tories and French aristocrats--and even by Edmund Burke, often unfairly characterized as an English reactionary but actually a rather daring Irish Whig. "Take but degree away, untune that string," as it is said in "Troilus and Cressida," "and hark what discord follows." The masses, if given free rein, would vote themselves free beer and pull down the churches and country houses that had been established to show the blessings of order. I cannot find any non-pejorative use in English of the Greek word "democracy" until Thomas Paine took it up in the first volume of "The Rights of Man" and employed it as an affirmative term of pride.

Jefferson was a great admirer of this book, but since it was not published until 1791 it cannot have helped animate his writing of the Declaration. For that document, he was obliged to be slightly more feline. In the celebrated opening sentences, he replaced John Locke's emphasis on "life, liberty and property" with a more lapidary phrasing that I do not need to restate. His choice of words was a pregnant one. The property qualification for voting was to endure for a considerable time in many European countries, and property itself was to be reasserted at Philadelphia in the debates on the Constitution, but the link between property ownership and ownership of natural rights had been undermined for all time. A second phrase--"the consent of the governed"--alerted any reader of the Declaration to the idea that the people were ultimately sovereign, and that their "happiness" trumped any divine or oligarchic presumption.

In the long run, therefore, it did not matter as much as it might have done that so many of "the people" were at first left unprotected by the great, formal, classical roof of the Constitution. Jefferson was absent in Paris when the secret voting on this grand instrument took place (he was often very fortunate in his temporary absences) but the principles of his Declaration were to be potent enough to subject the Constitution itself to repeated revisions. When Abraham Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, his opening reference to "four score and seven years ago" was to Jefferson, and not to the Federalist Papers. Within a few years after Gettysburg, the women of America had met at Seneca Falls and set out their demands in a form of words modeled on the Declaration. Almost every extension of rights and franchise has followed the same pattern of emulation. Jefferson himself was convinced that emancipation of slaves should be followed by their deportation, and his view of the capacity of women was decidedly low. But the essence of the "democratical" is that it is unpredictable, so that once the enterprise is launched it is difficult to keep it within bounds.

In other respects, Jefferson certainly hoped that democracy would not be bounded at all. Some argue to this day that there can be Christian or Muslim or Jewish democracies, but Jefferson was insistent that democracy meant religious pluralism, and consequently the separation of church and state. His Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, which banned the imposition of any religious test or the raising of any religious tithe, is the basis of the all-important First Amendment to our Constitution. There might perhaps have been a Protestant democracy in the Americas, stretching like Chile down the East Coast, and hemmed in by the ocean and the mountains, but in order to have a multiethnic and multiconfessional electorate on a larger scale, it was essential that secularism be inscribed at the beginning.

It was also necessary that democracy be "for export," and that it be able to defend itself. "May it be to the world," wrote Jefferson in his last letter, on June 24, 1826, "what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government." It cannot be said that Jefferson himself was entirely consistent on this--the Haitian revolution filled him with dread, even if that slave revolt induced Napoleon to offer the sale of the Louisiana territory--but he did identify with democrats in other countries and did believe that America should be on their side. His long friendships with Lafayette, Paine and Kosciusko are testimony to the fact.

The most successful "export" was Jefferson's determined use of naval and military force to reduce the Barbary States of the Ottoman Empire, which had set up a slave-taking system of piracy and blackmail along the western coast of North Africa. Our third president was not in a position to enforce regime change in Algiers or Tripoli, but he was able to insist on regime behavior-modification (and thus to put an end to at least one slave system). Ever since then, every major system of tyranny in the world has had to run at least the risk of a confrontation with the United States, and one hopes that the Jeffersonians among us will continue to ensure that this remains true.

- Mr. Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of "Thomas Jefferson: Author of America" (HarperCollins, 2005).

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